Interview: Comics and Teaching

I was recently cleaning out a bunch of old documents that had accumulated in my Google Drive and I stumbled on this interview that I did a while back about teaching with comics. I honestly don’t remember what it was for–it may have just been an email interview with a graduate student, or something similar–but it dates from 2012. Reading this over now, it seems like the questions have a “comics vs. prose” undercurrent to them that I wasn’t responding to. I’ve never been really invested in any conversation that “pits” comics vs. other media–particularly the old “comics can do X, which movies can’t” saw. Anyway…

  • How where you first introduced to comics?

I guess the first comics I was around regularly were some books of Rupert, a British comics character that my great aunt and uncle had in their house.  I think my great uncle must have brought the books back from Europe when he returned from World War II.  I remember reading those over and over again as a very, very young child.  Around that same time, I would spend time, while my mom was at work during the day, with an older retired couple who lived next door to me; they had some classic strip collections in their house that I used to really like–Betty Boop, Little Orphan Annie, that sort of stuff.

As far as comic books go, the first of those I remember having were the Marvel adaptations of Star Wars from the 70s.  It used to be that comic books were for sale at pretty much any drug store, grocery store or convenience store, so one didn’t really necessarily need to be “introduced” to comics as a youngster; they were fairly ubiquitous.

  • Do you have any experience teaching with comics?

Yes, I’ve taught comics classes at colleges, high school summer programs, community art centers, libraries, and workshops around the country.  What I’ve taught, though, is not so much teaching with comics, but rather teaching studio classes giving instruction on how one creates comics.

  • What do you think is the biggest difference between a comic book and other teaching materials? (i.e. books, novels, pictures)

Well, since I’ve not taught classes in areas other than comics (and a few other art-related areas), I can’t really compare and contrast teaching comics vs. teaching other subjects.  There is, though, certainly some anecdotal evidence from the teaching community that using comics is quite effective with “reluctant readers” as well as with situations like English as a Second Language programs.  Other than the peculiarities of comics’ visual language, I don’t know that there’s any real fundamental difference between using, say, MAUS, as a primary text vs. using a pure prose book.

  • Have you experienced first hand how comics help students?If so, can you explain the process?

The most obvious benefit of teaching comics is really the same benefit you get teaching any narrative.  Again, I don’t think there’s a huge substantive difference between using comic vs. pure prose literature.  It all comes down the quality of the book you chose.  As far as a story of any particular student goes, I don’t know that I have one, but in general I do find that students who are already interested in comics and graphic novels are often quite excited and passionate about studying them since they often perceive them to be worthy of close examination, but rarely find teachers who are willing to engage them in a classroom environment.

  • How effective do you think teaching with comics/graphic novels is?

Again, as mentioned above, I don’t really have a point of reference to compare teaching with comics vs. teaching with other source material.

  • Why do you think this medium is being used more than before in teaching?

I think there are probably two main factors: 1) There is now a critical mass of teachers who grew up reading comics in the post-MAUS comics environment and who understand and appreciate the art form.  These folks have been instrumental in pushing the art form into areas of academic and cultural prominence that they previously would not have been able to make much headway into.  2) There is, combined with this, a generation of students who have grown up in a world that’s largely centered on visual literacy… and many of whom are steeped in the influence of Japanese comics and animation. Also: it would be difficult to underestimate the incredibly important role librarians have played in moving comics into the mainstream as far as reading/teaching materials go in schools.

  • In your opinion, is the comic industry falling, or in the contrary, growing?

My impression is that the portion of the industry that deals with monthly, serialized genre stories (superhero companies like Marvel and DC) are pretty much holding their own, but not really expanding.  On the other hand, I think publishers that publish graphic novels are generally doing really well.  Certainly there are now a larger number of big previously prose-only publishers as well who now have graphic novels divisions.  The publishing industry as a whole is feeling the effects of the current recession, but proportionally GNs are still doing quite well.

  • Do you think that using comics or graphic novels in teaching have a limitation?

Certainly, like teaching with anything else, it’s limited by the quality of the source material.  You’re unlikely to be able to do high quality teaching with a low-quality book, whether a GN or pure prose.

  • What do you think about how people used to see comics in the past and how they see them now?

Comics in the U.S. have been the subject of varying public opinion over the last century or so.  I think that currently they’re accorded higher status than they have been for quite some time among those “in the know”–people up on what’s current in the literary world–and also among people under, say, 20 years of age or so.  I don’t know that your average person on the street, though, (particularly older folks) have much of an association with comics beyond comics-related cultural signposts: Hollywood movies and whatnot.

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